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Canzano: Football coach Mike Riley and wife Dee Riley are an easy team to root for
Football coach shares struggles.
Mike Riley always coached. His wife, Dee, cheered. Over the years when he was the head football coach at Oregon State they’d arrive in the post-game news conference together.
Mike stood at the front of the room.
Dee at the back.
I’d sometimes duck out of the media scrum and find Dee standing, arms folded, watching her husband answer questions. I’d whisper a ‘hello’ to her and she’d always ask how my children were and offer a word about that day’s game. But her eyes rarely left her husband. He would speak with media and then hug his wife in the hallway before returning to the locker room.
That husband-wife team is in the USFL now. Riley, coach and general manager of the New Jersey Generals, shared some sobering news with his players. He informed them that they’d be seeing more of Dee around the team facility.
“My wife,” Riley told his players, “suffers from a health condition — a mental health condition.”
Mike and Dee met at the University of Alabama. He was a college football player and they were introduced by a friend. The story goes that they eventually lost touch and drifted apart. Years later, Mike was a graduate assistant coaching at UC Berkeley and decided he’d call her out of the blue, remembering that day — May 22 — happened to be her birthday.
Dee picked up.
“Happy Birthday, Dee,” he announced.
“Thanks,” she deadpanned, “but my birthday is May 2.”
The football coach likes to tell that story. It underscores both the absent-minded nature that coaches can sometimes have. Also, the grace that partners of those coaches often demonstrate.
Mike and Dee fell in love, got married and had children. Then, they had grandchildren. There were coaching stops in Canada, Corvallis, the NFL, then back to Corvallis for a second stop, then onto Nebraska. Dee was always there, alongside Mike. Now, they find themselves back in professional football in the USFL and battling the challenge of a lifetime.
“You’ll see her around,” Riley, 68, told his players. He explained her condition causes confusion and disorientation.
“She knows Devante,” Riley explained pointing to one of his players in the room, “but she’s going to meet Devante again and it will be new to her…
“She’ll still love you. She’s sweet as can be.”
It’s easy to root for Mike Riley. He is kind, fair, and does the right thing in most cases. He’s quick to admit a mistake and eager to fix it. Over the years he pedaled his bicycle to and from practices, waving at people as he passed through Corvallis. His teams were well coached and he developed a line of players for the NFL. But it’s Riley’s good heart that I remember most.
My middle daughter was born in 2014 with Laryngomalacia — a condition that affected her esophagus and made breathing dicey in the first few weeks of her life. I attended an appointment at a children’s hospital with my wife and newborn daughter one morning. When we walked out, my cell phone rang.
It was Riley.
“What’s going on with your baby daughter?” the coach asked.
We talked for a while, one girl dad to another.
The Beavers went to nine bowl games in the 62 seasons prior to Riley arriving at Oregon State. During Riley’s first stint in Corvallis he set the table for the success of Dennis Erickson. On his second tour Riley took the Beavers to eight bowl games in 12 seasons. He won six of them, too.
I wasn’t surprised that Riley talked about his wife with such love and compassion this week. I wasn’t shocked that he decided to share the setback with his players, who will undoubtedly deal with their own someday.
It’s the kind of teaching Riley does best, isn’t it?
Mike Riley remains easy to root for. His wife, Dee, is too. I was sorry to hear they’re battling some challenges. But I smiled when I saw the images of them together at a football practice this week.
Said Riley to his players: “We’re doing great. It’s just part of life.”
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